How Challengers Go From 'Wow' to 'Oops'

The Wall Street Journal

Pundits have a host of explanations for why Bill Bradley's and John McCain's
candidacies failed: Mr. Bradley failed to respond to Al Gore's attacks; Mr.
McCain blundered in attacking the religious right; Mr. McCain stole Mr.
Bradley's thunder; the public isn't that interested in reform after all.

The real explanation is simpler, and it lies in the dynamic of political
insurgency. Insurgents can't match the large-scale political organizations
that governors and congressional delegations give establishment
candidates like Al Gore and George W. Bush. Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain
had to rely on ragtag armies of idealists with lots of zeal but little
experience. And since insurgents can't count on large reservoirs of cash for
advertisements, they are much more dependent on "free media" -- that is,
news stories.

Therein lies the insurgent's trap. The media have only two basic stories --
"Wow!" and "Oops!" Insurgents can keep the passions stirred only with a
continuous stream of Wows. Any halfway credible insurgent begins with a
Wow because the very act of taking on the establishment is surprising.
Prior to his big media moment in September, Mr. Bradley spent more than a
year painstakingly putting together the bare bones of a national
organization plus a respectable campaign chest, yet he still needed
September's Wow to bring in enough people and money to wage a
remotely serious challenge to Mr. Gore. Similarly, Mr. McCain had very little
organization or money before his New Hamsphire Wow. That moment had
to be explosive in order to sustain him through Super Tuesday.

Trouble is, to keep the Wows coming, insurgents must keep doing better
than they're expected to do. They can't elicit Wows just by meeting
expectations, because there's nothing surprising in that. Problem is, Wows
themselves raise expectations. In New Hampshire Mr. Bradley came within
four points of beating an incumbent vice president. Under normal
circumstances, this would have elicited a Wow. But Mr. Bradley had already
gotten his Wow last fall, raising expectations in the Granite State. By
January, when polls showed him trailing Mr. Gore in New Hampshire, Mr.
Bradley's Wow had turned into an Oops.

Mr. McCain's New Hampshire Wow, on the other hand, was enough to
keep him going through the Oops of South Carolina and to turn his victory
in Michigan into a Wow. But last week's loss in Washington state was one
Oops too many.

Establishment candidates seem to be at a disadvantage at the beginning
of a campaign. They can't get an initial Wow, because, after all, they're the
establishment. They can only earn initial Oops, as did Mr. Gore and Mr.
Bush. But whereas an Oops is deadly to an insurgent, establishment
candidates have sufficient organization and money to reinvent themselves
and then market the reinvention. Last year, when their primary victories
had seemed assured, both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush played it safe and
well-rehearsed. Why risk being spontaneous when a tried-and-true
formula will see you through to victory? But each of them then ran smack
into the one thing that would wreck the old formula -- a rival so natural as
to draw attention to the calculated hubris of the formula itself.

Early last fall a carefully packaged, ponderous Al Gore confronted a Bill
Bradley so unpackaged as to be almost naked. Oops! So Gore transformed
himself into a hyperkinetic dynamo -- chucking the dark suits and
starched-white shirts, mixing it up with audiences, and talking nonstop.

Before January, George W. Bush's every move and utterance was carefully
tested and scripted. But John McCain was so natural he made Mr. Bush's
potted charm seem as artificial as a metallic Christmas tree. So Mr. Bush
did a remake, too -- diving into free-wheeling question-and-answer
sessions, releasing a new round of TV ads that looked more like
minidocumentaries than commercials, and becoming "re-energized." Both
frontrunners attacked their rivals mercilessly (without undue regard for the
truth of their claims), evincing newfound passion for the top job. They
didn't exactly earn themselves Wows -- but it was enough to catch their
opponents in an Oops.

So now we're left with two remakes of last year's two inevitables, and a
lot of the citizens who started paying attention to American politics during
the last few months will now go back to sleep. But don't think the reform
impulse has died. There's still a latent passion for a new politics of integrity
in America -- coupling a tell-it-like-it-is candor with a call to grab
government back from the special interests, lobbyists and flacks.

Both Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain were hoisted on the insurgent petard with
which their campaigns began. As lone individuals taking on their party
establishments, they couldn't incite enough activism to keep their
candidacies alive through primaries created by those party establishments.
A new politics, including reform of our system of money-backed
government, will require more than individual insurgencies. It will demand
a sustained moral movement.

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